"The hand of time alone disarms
Her face of its superfluous charms,
But adds for every grace resigned,
A thousand to adorn her mind."
THERE is a wide difference between the young girl about to enter life, and the middle-aged spinster soured by disappointed hopes, and hence the Hindustani proverb asks, "What is the good of mincing when you are growing old?" Some allowance must be made for the petulancy and coquetry of youth, and an old adage of proverbial philosophy has perhaps saved many an inexperienced swain from marrying a penniless girl barely out of the schoolroom, by whispering in his ear, "Sweetheart and honeybird keeps no house;" and although the spirit of chivalry has always prompted mankind to see nothing but good in maidenhood, yet a Spanish proverb has boldly put this question, "All are good maids, but whence come the bad wives?" which the proverbial lore of our own and other countries has wisely left unanswered.
Girlhood, as it has been often said, is fleeting and fragile; and, according to a Scotch proverb, "Glasses and lasses are brackle [brittle] wares." Another piece of Scotch folk-lore referring to the transitoriness of youth, says that "Lassies are like lamb-legs; they'll neither saut nor keep;" whereas Hindustani lore tells us that "Maidenhood is perennial spring."
If we may credit the verdict of our forefathers, a characteristic of inexperienced girlhood is doing the very thing which is declared to be impossible. Thus, it is said, " Maids say nay and take"--a kiss, a ring, or an offer of marriage. A similar adage, says Mr. Jeaffreson, "'The maid that taketh yieldeth,' was often quoted in old time by the pedantical jurists, who declared that by taking a ring a girl yielded to the entreaties of her suitor even to the point of becoming his spouse."
Her hesitancy, too, has usually placed her at the mercy of her pursuer. "The maid that laughs," says proverbial lore, "is half taken;" and it takes care to add, "the woman that wavers is lost."
Many a young girl, we are told, loses her opportunity of marriage through either not being able to make up her mind, or owing to her not being satisfied with one sweetheart, hence the saying, "A lass that has many wooers oft fares the worst."
As might be expected, the wise saws of old had much to say about the treatment of young ladies, and according to a well-known Scotch proverb, "Maidens should be mim till they're married, and then they may burn kirks," which Kelly thus explains: "Spoken often by way of reflection, when we say that such an one is a good-humoured girl, as if you would say, 'Observe how she'll prove when she is married.'"
The monitor, it has been observed, had some true knowledge of human nature, who, "for the benefit of lads pursuing jealously-guarded damsels," produced the couplet:--
"He that would the daughter win,
Must with her mother first begin;"
or, as another version has it, "Daughters and dead fish are no keeping wares," implying that daughters should be married and dead fish eaten, otherwise they will both spoil in the hands of their possessors. But, on the other hand, mothers are reminded that it is far from an easy thing always to find a husband for her daughter, hence it is said, "Marry your son when you will, your daughter when you can," an admonition, indeed, which explains the following: "Marriageable foolish wenches are troublesome troops to keep." It is further added, "Marry your daughters betimes, lest they marry themselves."
There would seem to be some art in courting a fair maiden, for "he that woos a maid must feign, lie, and flatter," whereas another proverb says, "He that woos a maid must come seldom in her sight," or, in other words, he must avoid excess of eagerness in courting, for--
"Follow love, and it will flee,
Flee love, and it will follow thee."
But, on the other hand, it must not be forgotten that--
"Lad's love is lassie's delight,
And if lads won't love, lassies will flite"
--flite meaning to scold, the same as the Scottish flit.
Daughters, it is said, generally take after their mothers, "Like mother, like daughter," although there are many exceptions to this rule, for an old proverb says, "A light heel'd mother makes a heavy heel'd daughter," because she does all the work herself, and her daughter in the meantime sitting idle, contracts a habit of sloth. Similarly in France we find the same idea, "Mére pitieuse fait sa fille rogneuse"--"A tender mother makes a scabby daughter."
From time immemorial the old maid has been made an object of ridicule, and the only thing according to proverbial folk-lore that she is fit for is to "lead apes in hell":--
"And now, Tatlanthe, thou art all my care:
Pity that you, who've served so long and well,
Should die a virgin, and lead apes in hell.
Choose for yourself, dear girl, our Empire round,
Your portion is three hundred thousand pound."
Shakespeare makes Katherine say to her father in allusion to Bianca:--
"She is your treasure, she must have a husband.
I must dance barefoot on her wedding-day,
And for your love to her lead apes in hell."
Malone, on this passage, remarks that in olden times "to lead apes" was one of the employments of a bear-ward, who often carried about one of those animals along with his bear. It was also customary, in days gone by, for elder sisters to dance barefooted at the marriage of a younger one, as otherwise they would inevitably become old maids.
In different parts of the country, too, a custom once practised was that of the elder sister dancing in a hog's trough in consequence of the younger sister marrying before her--when it was considered the most correct thing to dance in green stockings.
"In Spain," writes Mr. Finck, "old maids are rare, because a girl generally accepts her first offer, and there are probably not many girls who do not receive at least one offer in their life. In Russia a curious custom prevails whereby a girl of uncertain age may escape the appellation of old maid. She may leave home and become lost for two or three years in Paris, London, or some other howling wilderness of humanity. Then she may return to her friends neither as maid nor wife, but as a widow. And it is good form in Russian Society to accept this myth without asking for details."
In Scotland there is a time-honoured adage, "Oh for a drap o' gentle blude, that I may wear black abune my brow," which shows that an old maid fares worse there than elsewhere. " In Scotland," writes Kelly, "no woman is suffered to wear a silk hood unless she be a gentlewoman, that is, a gentleman's daughter, or married to a gentleman. A rich maid having the offer of a wealthy yeoman, or a bare gentleman, wished for the last to qualify her to wear a black hood. It is since spoken to such wealthy maidens upon the like occasion.
Some allowance must be made for old maids if they are proverbially sour and crabby--"As spiteful as an old maid," as the phrase goes--and apt to speak in a disparaging manner of their younger sisters. Thus, in Scotland and the North of England, one may often hear some prim spinster remark, "Lassies nowadays ort nae God's creatures"--this being, says Jamieson, "the proverbial reflection of an old woman, as signifying that in our times young women are by no means nice in their choice of husbands."
But it only too often happens that the old maid tries to appear juvenile, and hence in Lancashire, when inquiries respecting the health of an absent friend are made, the subjoined couplet is frequently quoted by way of reply:--
"Quite young and all alive,
Like an old maid of forty-five."
There comes, however, a time when such frolicsome ways have to be abandoned, and then it is said of a woman, when there is no disguising her age, "This maid was born old."
But, however much old maids may be exposed to undeserved ridicule, many a piece of romance tells how invariably such a fate is due to no fault of their own, as is instanced by the following traditionary tale:--
"Years ago some Welsh miners, in exploring an old pit that had long been closed, found the body of a young man dressed in a fashion long out of date. The peculiar action of the air of the mine had been such as to preserve the body so perfectly that it appeared asleep rather than dead.
"The miners were puzzled at the circumstance; no one in the district had been missed within their remembrance; and at last it was resolved to bring the oldest inhabitant--an old lady, long past her eightieth year, who had lived single in the village the whole of her life. On being brought into the presence of the body, a strange scene occurred; the old lady fell on the corpse, kissed, and addressed it in every term of loving endearment, couched in the quaint language of a bygone generation. 'He was her only love; she had waited for him during her long life; she knew that he had not forsaken her.'
"The old woman and the young man had been betrothed sixty years before. The lover had disappeared mysteriously, and she had kept faithful during that long interval. Time had stood still with the dead man, but had left its mark on the living woman. The miners who were present were a rough set; but very gently, and with tearful eyes, they escorted the old lady to her house, and the same night her faithful spirit rejoined that of her long-lost lover."
And it must he remembered that, after all the severe judgment which has been passed by cynical proverbial lore on old maids, much has been said in their favour; for, according to a Bengal adage, "A clever woman is not old, though aged, but has the sweet sap of wit in her;" and a Sinhalese saying reminds us that, whatever its surroundings, and wherever found, "A gem is a gem;" and yet, according to Hindustani proverbial lore, "An old maid is a pack of evil."